Note: This story is from my book Highway History And Back Road Mystery II.
When John Milburn Davis proposed to Sarah Hart, her family was quick to express their disapproval. After all, this upstart was only the hired hand! The very nerve of him! Still, Sarah was in love, and the wedding went forward over her parent’s objections.
Davis never felt accepted by his wife’s family, and by all accounts, their relationship was stiff at best. Still, he and Sarah’s union seems to have been happy. The hard working couple settled on 260 acres and built a prosperous farm near Hiawatha, Kansas. Over the years they amassed a fortune, though their marriage never produced any children.
Sarah died in 1930, after over 50 years of marriage, and John Davis soon began constructing a remarkable testament to “the sacred memory” of his wife. He had the simple headstone over her grave in Hiawatha’s Mount Hope Cemetery removed, and in its place had a massive marble canopy weighing over 50 tons erected.
Over the next few years Davis commissioned a series of eleven Italian marble statues showing himself and Sarah at various times in their life, and had them placed under the canopy.
The statues include the couple during their courtship, in their middle age years, and sitting in their armchairs as senior citizens. One statue shows Sarah as a winged angle.
Perhaps the most poignant statues are of Davis sitting alone in his chair, and Sarah’s empty chair beside him with the words “The Vacant Chair” carved into it. You can see the loneliness in the statue’s eyes.
The total cost of the project was estimated at over $200,000, which was a fortune in Depression-era Kansas. The townsfolk of Hiawatha quickly came to resent what they saw as John Davis’ extravagance. The town’s mayor suggested to him that the money would be better spent to benefit all the citizens of Hiawatha. After all, the community was in need of both a hospital and a swimming pool.
But John Davis was unmoved and continued right on with his labor of love. When famed newspaper reporter Ernie Pyle interviewed Davis in the late 1930s, he told Pyle he did not care what the public opinion was of him. “They hate me, but it’s my money and I spent it the way I pleased.”
Of course, resentment always breeds gossip. And many believed that the memorial was not so much a testament of love as one to guilt. It was whispered that in life, Davis was not nearly as kind to Sarah as he wanted people to believe. There were also many who believed that Davis had never forgiven his in-laws for their treatment of him, and his primary goal was to spend every penny of his fortune before he died so that they would not inherit it.
When John Davis died in 1947, he was buried next to his wife under the marble canopy. The people of Hiawatha had never forgiven him for what they perceived as his selfishness, and his funeral was poorly attended. During his eulogy, the minister defended Davis by reminding the congregation that “All of us have peculiarities.”
What most people did not know was that John Davis was not the stingy hermit they all believed him to be. For years he had quietly given away tens of thousands of dollars to needy families, a few hundred dollars at a time, never asking for or expecting repayment or recognition.
In the long run, John Davis probably did more for Hiawatha by building his memorial than he would have if he had paid for a hospital or swimming pool. Every year tens of thousands of tourists come to Hiawatha to visit the cemetery and see the monument that some said was built to love, and others still believe was a work of spite.
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It’s Thursday, so it’s time for a new Free Drawing. This week’s prize is an audiobook of my friend Ken Rossignol’s Pirate Trials: Famous Murderous Pirates Book Series: THE LIVES AND ADVENTURES of FAMOUS and SUNDRY PIRATES. To enter, all you have to do is click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – Resentment is just a way of letting someone else use your mind rent fee.